Peer Gynt Summary

Henrik Ibsen

Peer Gynt

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Peer Gynt Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen.

Loosely based on a Norwegian fairy tale, Peer Gynt pushed at the boundaries of nineteenth-century theater, combining realism with the fantastical, and employing poetry, satire, and an almost cinematic use of time and space.

The play opens with Peer, a lazy, boastful farm boy lying to his mother, Åse, about a reindeer hunt. Cursing his laziness and lying, Åse complains that he failed to secure his marriage to Ingrid, the daughter of a rich farmer who could have solved their money worries. At this, Peer decides that he will marry Ingrid, only to be informed that she is now pledged to another man. Peer decides to go to the wedding to try and win the bride, although he stops partway to listen to guests talking about an important man and to fantasize about them discussing him instead. When he finally arrives, the only guest who will talk to him civilly is a young woman named Solveig, but she refuses to dance with him because her father disapproves of Peer’s reputation. Peer drinks and tells boastful stories, causing the other guests to mock him. However, Ingrid’s fiancé actually believes Peer’s tales and, when he learns that Ingrid has locked herself in her room, he asks Peer to help him break in so he can speak to her. Peer takes this chance to sneak in, and the play’s first act closes with the wedding guests witnessing Ingrid carried off over Peer’s shoulder.

In the morning, a desperate, half-dressed Ingrid pleads with Peer not to leave her after seducing her, but he is cold and indifferent to her words. Elsewhere, Solveig and her parents help Åse search for Peer. Solveig asks for further details of the wayward boy. Peer, meanwhile, meets three dairymaids who are waiting for mountain trolls to come and seduce them. After talking to them, Peer gets drunk and, later, accidently knocks himself out. Peer then appears to wake up. He meets a woman dressed in green who claims to be the daughter of the king of the trolls. Peer is given the opportunity to become a troll prince if he marries her. Peer agrees but then declines to perform all of the tasks asked of him by the troll king, and the king accuses him of impregnating his daughter. Peer denies this, but the king responds that Peer impregnated her in his mind. Peer manages to escape, but then meets a creature called the Bøyg who will not let him pass without first answering riddles. It appears the Bøyg will defeat Peer this way until he suddenly surrenders, because he believes Peer is being helped by women that he cannot defeat. Peer wakes up outside his mother’s hut and it is implied that the previous incidents may have only occurred in his unconscious dreams. Solveig’s sister comes to him with food and greetings from Solveig, and Peer gives her a silver button and asks her to speak well of him to Solveig.

The third act begins with Peer living as an outlaw in a hut he built in the forest. This allows him to avoid being punished by the villagers for kidnapping Ingrid. However, Åse was heavily fined instead and Solveig must also suffer, sacrificing her own happiness to live with him as an outlaw in the forest. The daughter of the troll king, now old and bent, arrives with a deformed, half-human, half-troll child that she claims was born after Peer impregnated her in his mind. Angered, she lays a curse on him, so that he can never be with Solveig without facing the sins of his past and, so, can never be happy. However, Peer believes he can find redemption. After making Solveig promise to wait for him, he goes to sooth his mother as she dies, then thanks her for her sacrifices and support, and sets off to travel far across the seas.

The play’s penultimate act takes place several years later, with Peer now a successful businessman living in Morocco. He remains an unethical man prone to bragging and lying about his own brilliance. On his boat, over dinner with friends, he explains how he made his money selling heathen icons and Christian bibles and by trafficking in slaves but treating his slaves well. He appears to be a man who will do anything for money, even if those things contradict earlier actions or clash with his supposed morals. This behavior alienates those around him and his so-called friends steal his boat and his possessions and dump him on the shore. However, Peer asks God for help and a sheet of flame destroys the boat. Next, Peer attempts to seduce a tribal chief’s daughter while masquerading as a prophet but, instead, she robs him of his riches. Undeterred, he travels on to Egypt and begins speaking to the Sphinx, which he thinks is the Bøyg, and then briefly ends up in a lunatic asylum. Here, he recognizes that the inmates live entirely as themselves, ungoverned by societal conventions and responsibilities and, to his distress, they recognize the same about him.

The final act of the play sees Peer as an old man traveling back to Norway on a boat which sinks, dumping him on shore where he is forced to confront his many failings. The “Button Molder” threatens to melt down his soul like any other dysfunctional, useless item and, after failing to justify his life or confess his sins, Peer finally accepts how selfish and pointless his life has been. At that very instant, he hears Solveig sing but when he asks her to explain his sins to the Button Molder, she says he has not sinned and that the good man he should have been has always existed in her faith and her love. At this, the Button Molder leaves Peer but promises that they will meet again at the final crossroads.